Self-Justification in Marriage

Conflicts are an inseparable part of human relations. Conflicts arise in everyday situations, and in the process of seeking a solution people inevitably resort to self-justification. Self-justification provides the means to validate a certain decision or peacemaking strategy when a conflict needs to be resolved. Marriage and family life are one of the typical settings where the power of self-justification and its negative influences are revealed.  As Carol Tavirs and Eliot Aronson state in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), every marriage is a story, and any story is subject to re-interpretation and prejudiced views of the participants. 

The book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) discusses the problem of self-justification in marriage. The authors state that self-justification can ruin the marriage and cause misunderstandings and arguments between the spouses.  The researchers claim that self-justification and inability to acknowledge one’s own mistakes often result in significant conflicts. 

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According to Aronson and Tavris, self-justification should be avoided as far as possible. To make this more possible, admission of one’s mistakes should be rewarded. Distorted perception of each other’s actions is a frequent case even in happy marriages, and the principal task of the spouses is not to avoid misunderstanding completely, but rather to learn how to solve them without arguing. Psychologists emphasize that it is vital to understand that conflicts are normal, and every couple sometimes have to deal with disagreements.  Analyzing the story of Debra and Frank, the authors remark that the differences that cause troubles are what usually keep the couple together.  In their example, Debra is subconsciously attracted by Frank’s reserve and calmness, and he appreciates her energetic and emotional character. However, these differences often become the reason for misunderstandings and arguments.  In such case, it is important for both spouses to understand that self-justification is an obstacle to empathy. They should remember that the differences in personality usually are not the main cause of conflicts. Inability to put up with differences and respect them is what creates troubles in family life.  Tavris and Aronson underline that self-comparing and contrasting one spouse to the other one is one of the most frequently made mistakes. Pointing to differences in characters will inevitably make one spouse think that his or her opinion is right and no other solution to the problem can be accepted.  Self-justification does not help to find the way out. It only aggravates the conflict since it excludes objective thinking. The couple become concentrated on shifting the blame to one another and cannot discuss the problem reasonably and come to a coherent conclusion. Moreover, psychologists claim that misunderstanding, dissatisfaction, and irritation at each other’s behavior are rarely the primary reason for serious conflict. Usually conflicts arise when one of the spouses attempts to prove that the problem in question is the other’s fault and tries to distance himself or herself from it. This is why the majority of domestic conflicts result from minor everyday issues, such as unwashed dishes on the table or a misplaced remote control. 

One of the most negative aspects of self-justification is its tendency to go beyond the boundaries of the issue in question.  Instead of discussing the current problem, the spouses extremely often start criticizing one another, try to compare their behavior or draw parallels between themselves and other couples. This raises a minor domestic issue to the level of a significant interpersonal conflict, and each of the spouses is sure that he/she is the right type of person, and the other is the wrong one. 

Cognitive dissonance is the inevitable part of conflict situations that triggers self-deception and creates unnecessary illusions.  The feeling of tension caused by the clash of thoughts has negative influence on interpersonal relations.  The contradiction between “I love this person” and “This person’s actions annoy me” is the foundation of cognitive dissonance in marriage. Cognitive dissonance makes the spouses think that they cannot keep their values and act naturally.  As Steven Stosny remarks, the majority of couples resolve cognitive dissonance in a negative way. The scholar states that the frequent conclusion made by most people can be summarized as follows: “Since I am unable to be my loving and compassionate self with you, you must be too selfish, insensitive, withholding, demanding, emotional, rigid, sick, or defective in some way”.  Negative reactivity to cognitive dissonance often undermines marriages. Normally the spouses believe that successful marriage implies the possibility to be yourself and act lovingly and respectfully. However, sometimes the natural behavior of a partner can cause dissatisfaction of the other partner. The lack of positive reciprocity and permanent clash of opinions about right and wrong often cannot be solved peacefully since none of the spouses is ready to admit that the switch from discussing a certain issue to overall criticism is ungrounded.  The concentration on what is viewed as the other’s flaws usually leads to self-pitying and aggravates the conflict (Papp, Goeke-Morey, and Cummings). Each of the couple is convinced that since the other one is not the right kind of person, he or she will never be able to appreciate their positive features or will even mistake them for defects.  The story of Frank and Debra described by Tavris and Aronson is a classical example of how excessive self-justification can distort the truth and spoil the relationships of a seemingly happy couple. Frank and Debra’s example is a classical example of alternative views, when “his” story mirrors “hers” and vice versa. Self-justification is obvious in this case, and it is the main factor of risk. The conflict becomes more serious after each of the spouses starts analyzing the other’s personality instead of dealing with the problem. Moreover, the problem itself has been aroused by cognitive dissonance and self-justification to a large extent. Debra compares the life of the couple she has met to her own marriage and comes to a conclusion that that couple is much happier, and she and Frank absolutely do not correspond to her ideal of happy spouses. She tries to justify this seeming mismatch by stating that Frank is not the right type of person and is not a perfect husband for her. Debra starts her reasoning with rather concrete issues, such as the lack of financial well-being, but ends with generalized statements about Frank’s temperament and preferences that prove to be nearly the complete opposite of hers.  The reasoning turns into self-pitying, and no compromise can be found.  Frank’s version displays the same self-justifying attitude.  He does not start the conflict, but at the same time he does nothing to avoid it and only aggravates it by pointing out his wife’s faults and refusing to speak with her about her worries. Frank chooses a strategy of excessive withdrawal. His unresponsive behavior increases Debra’s dissatisfaction. Her model of behavior becomes more and more aggressive, and the conflict becomes inevitable. 

As Aronson and Tavris remark, the need for self-justification does not allow the spouses to listen to each other and accept each other’s view as legitimate.  However, both Frank and Debra perfectly understand each other’s point of view when they consider it calmly, without letting cognitive dissonance interfere with their common sense.  This is the evidence of negative reactivity, when the spouses focus on their own positions and refuse to reconsider them from a different point of view. 

One of the best ways to avoid conflicts and reduce the need for self-justification is giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Successful marriage is built on mutual trust and approval; this is why happy spouses try to focus attention on minor actions that can increase their affection to each other, such as giving each other presents without a particular reason or helping with housework.  Unhappy couples, on the contrary, perceive such actions as situational fluke that cannot be repeated regularly. Such view increases their need for self-justification. When these “temporary flukes” are too rare, each of the spouses attempts to explain this by criticizing the other’s personality.  For example, a wife might justify this by saying something like “He bought me flowers only because the other guys were buying them for their wives”. She would be convinced that her husband is a wrong kind of person and would never give her a gift himself. 

However, the researchers note that not all kinds of self-justification are unhealthy. Sometimes it is useful for the preservation of self-esteem and prevention of misunderstanding. This usually happens in case of minor disagreement about relatively trivial things, such as mistakes in the retelling of a favorite movie episode or delay in the payment of bills. The study shows that in such situations self-justification is less likely to make one blind to reality. It serves as a means to reduce psychological tension rather than a means to validate one’s opinion. Self-justification is harmless as long as it is intended to justify one’s actions and does not concern one’s personal qualities. Self-justification that does not involve fundamental concepts about one’s identity, according to Aronson, is not the kind that erodes marriages.  Crises occur only when the partners start pointing out the features that they like in themselves and that they cannot or do not want to change. Concentration on the issue instead of the individuals and consideration of common interests rather than individual views are an efficient way to move a self-justifying argument to a coherent discussion. Reframing of the discussion is also useful since it helps to increase empathy and draw conclusions from others’ opinions, without focusing on one’s own position. These are practical techniques that are proposed by the psychologists in order to prevent serious quarrels.  

The problem of Frank and Debra is that they both are trying to find internal reasons for their disagreements and overlook external factors. Both of them have created implicit theories of how the other partner influences their marriage and what damages the other’s inherent flaws may inflict. For example, Debra attributes Frank’s unwillingness to talk to his passive and stubborn nature and does not believe that he is simply tired and not in the mood to discuss complicated issues. One instance of her husband’s communicative passivity makes Debra expand her erroneous conclusions. She starts saying that Frank is always too indifferent, “plodding through life”, and unwilling to take active part in solving problems. However, taking a closer look at the situation, it becomes obvious that the qualities that Debra mistakes for disrespect and passivity are in fact Frank’s positive sides. Frank, for his part, justly defines himself as a loyal and highly tolerant husband. He underlines that his reserve is what usually encourages people to put trust in him. However, he tends to exaggerate the irrationality of his wife’s behavior. Debra’s emotions seem irrelevant and childish to him, though in reality her being outgoing and the ability to establish social ties effectively compensate for his excessive reserve. Actually, they are making the same mistake. Both are unable to realize that the cause of misunderstanding is not their partner’s mistake, but their mutual unwillingness to face the reality and the fact that they choose self-justification as a means to escape. 

Gradual accumulation of implicit theories of damage and growing assurance that the crisis of family life is the fault of their partner make the spouses resort to self-justification more often.  Implicit theories are developed in order to praise oneself for good actions and justify the negative ones by shifting the blame on someone else or stating that circumstances made one choose a certain model of behavior. In happy marriages, self-justification is normally dealt with by means of self-forgiveness. The spouses should try to forgive each other like they forgive themselves. Forgiveness, according to some scholars, has “transcendent power in helping the individuals to see past their roles as victims and villains”. It helps to overcome the irresistible desire to justify one’s own actions and achieve empathy and mutual understanding.  Tavris and Aronson rightly remark that the issue of forgiveness does not primarily concern the conflict in question. Forgiveness should include marriage in general. It implies that the spouses should be able to overlook each other’s minor faults with the help of memories about any “thoughtful and loving things they did”. 

Self-justification is a way to make excuses.  Excuses are often viewed as a sign of immaturity and unwillingness to take responsibility. When the spouses start making excuses, they are likely to blame each other not only for the mistake they have made, but also for unreliability and selfishness. This will certainly aggravate the argument since the person who is making excuses already feels humiliated and is likely to let their temper take control.  In such a case maintenance of a positive self-image and self-esteem become a priority. Effective decision-making is not possible in the situation where both sides are primarily concerned with affirmation of the validity of their opinions and deny everything that contradicts their beliefs.  The researchers define this situation as confirmation bias. This means that each of the spouses subconsciously refuses to achieve compromise since it would mean denial of his or her position.  Confirmation bias is also a form of self-justification. It enables the couple to filter out the information that seems irrelevant. Despite the fact that sufficient evidence is often absent, the conflict sides resort to confirmation bias in order to support their arguments. 

According to some researchers, marriage is one of the few institutions that inevitably invite or even require self-justification and cognitive dissonance.  Only in marriage people can think one thing and do different things, and at the same time honestly think that it is right and sensible. 

In many marriage settings self-justification leads to so called domestic wars since it drives the couples to self-deception and hypocrisy that sooner or later result in arguments.  The need to justify their own actions often makes the couple ignore or overlook obvious things, both negative and positive. That is why it is extremely important to evaluate the severity of the conflict first and think about its potential consequences. Irrespective of the nature of the misunderstanding, the couple should be aware that their main task is to regard the situation objectively.  When the urge to justify the other’s behavior is absolutely irresistible, psychologists advise to look for the justification outside the present conflict situation. Sometimes the analysis of the broad context is helpful. The reason for the person’s irrelevant behavior can often be found in their environment. Problems at work, health issues, difficult weather conditions, and numerous other factors can account for one’s anxiety or bad mood. Sometimes negative emotions caused by external factors become overwhelming, and it is necessary to give vent to them. This vent is often found in the domestic life. 

However, other researchers criticize Tavris and Aronson’s theory as excessively biased against self-justification. They claim that it is not as negative as the authors describe in their book. Pervasive self-justification and intractability are certainly not conductive to successful solution of problems, but they should not be treated as the main obstacle to efficient conflict management. Though in the majority of cases the consequences of self-justification are harmful, sometimes it is well-grounded and even relevant to the conflict situation. 

Pamela Haag, for example, calls self-justification one of the most important ways to survive a complicated marriage, although she admits that honesty, sincerity, and openness are extremely valuable for maintaining healthy relationship.  In her opinion, self-justification can be a helpful adaptive strategy. Very often the problem is the marriage itself, and not the interpersonal relationships or irrelevant behavior models chosen by the husband or wife. The institution of marriage can be considered as too strict and limited for modern couples. The awareness that marriage is not obligatory for legitimate sexual life, upbringing of children, and establishing oneself in a certain social position makes people more prejudiced against it. In this situation, self-justification is considered as a way to rule out controversies and weaken the effect of marriage conventions without breaking the conventions themselves.  The researcher asserts that cognitive dissonance caused by self-justification does not result in mutual hypocrisy. On the contrary, it makes both spouses convinced in the integrity and logic of their opinions and helps them to reconcile with reality. In such a case, cognitive dissonance turns into a mechanism of adaptation. It is relieved by self justification that helps to find ways of reconciliation and, as Haag metaphorically expresses it, “to fit the round pegs into square holes”. This means that self-justification in marriage often serves as a means to rule out conflicts and find a mutually acceptable solution without losing a comfortable status quo.

As a conclusion, it is necessary to emphasize that misunderstandings and conflicts are not the assassins of love. The main reason for family troubles in the majority of cases is self-justification, cognitive dissonance and lack of empathy. The seemingly incompatible differences in character will not ruin the marriage if the spouses are ready to face them and find common ground. Self-justification is hard to put aside, and the objective consideration often seems to be beyond the couple’s abilities. However, as the researchers have shown, self-justification can be avoided by means of mutual effort. Maintenance of logic and coherence is highly important in a conflict. The couple should not let themselves lapse into emotions. The issue should be discussed on the basis of reason and sensibility. Preservation of common sense is the most effective way to avoid unnecessary self-justification and rule out the conflict successfully.  However, one can also remark that sometimes self-justification can be helpful. It is useful in case of trivial misunderstandings since it helps the couple to eliminate the feeling of incompetence and protects from losing self-confidence.  Self-justification should be limited to actions. Criticism and analysis of character are the principal reasons for arguments.